Star report on Africentric school
Board okays black-focused schools
Toronto board votes 11-9 after meeting filled with passionate pleas and dire warnings
Jan 30, 2008 Louise Brown Brett Popplewell Toronto Star staff reporters
The black-focused school is a go. After a heated but civil debate, Canada's largest school board voted 11-9 last night to open an alternative Africentric school to help fight a 40 per cent dropout rate among Toronto's black teens.
An elated parent, Donna Harrow, said she is thrilled the proposal she and fellow parent Angela Wilson had pushed for got through, despite fierce opposition and cries of segregation.
"I'm ecstatic, but the struggle continues and we want this school to open in 2008, not 2009," said Harrow.
Trustees voted on a sweeping package of programs to make schools more relevant to black students, including opening an Africentric school in September 2009.
Trustee Josh Matlow, who opposed the pilot project school, warned that there is no guaranteed funding from Queen's Park yet for even the estimated start-up costs of $350,000.
The entire package of initiatives carries an estimated price tag of $820,000.
In a passionate defence of the school, former chair Sheila Ward urged trustees to keep in mind "the power of symbolism" in endorsing it.
"I don't know what it's like to be a black parent, but I do know pain when I see it and recognize despair when I hear it, from the deepest part of the soul of those who believe time is running out," said Ward.
Prior to the vote, fans and foes of black-focused schools made their case before a crowd of about 100 with all the passion and power that issues of race ignite.
To the mother of Jordan Manners, "this black school thing – no, it ain't right."
"Don't propose it – Martin Luther King thought we could sit at the front of the bus together," pleaded Loreen Small, whose son was shot dead last spring at his school in northwest Toronto.
"My son died at C.W. Jefferys in 2007. If we can all just come together and be as one," said an emotional Small, who broke down in tears in the hall after her presentation.
"If black kids need to graduate, let's get teachers in there and learn how to interact with black kids," she said.
Yet human rights activist Vicky McPhee said an Africentric school "is a right," and the only type of school to which she wants to send her 6-year-old child. She called for these schools in each of the city's 22 wards.
Twelve of the 20 speakers urged the board to open an alternative Africentric school as a way to fight an estimated 40 per cent dropout rate among Toronto's black students.
Longtime community leader Murphy Browne said she was alarmed at the high number of youth being "pushed out" of school by a European-centred system, who then get "caught up in the school-to-jail pipeline."
"Many students say they would do better if they learned about their heritage, but who knows about Mathieu da Costa, (a navigator of African descent) who came to Canada in 1603 as a translator in Champlain's expeditions."
Others warned that an Africentric school would amount to a dangerous step back toward racial segregation.
In an impassioned bid to separate rumours from the real proposal, Donna Harrow reminded trustees that this proposed school would be open to all students.
Harrow said the debate has been made overly charged by those raising the ghost of the segregated South.
"This has turned into a fiasco – we did not propose a school for only blacks, we did not propose a school with all black teachers and all black curriculum.
"Let us stop it. This is a school where all people could come and get support.
No one said little white children could not go there."
Besides the Africentric school, the board passed, by wide margins, measures to:
Launch an action plan to help all black students do better.
Start three pilot programs in regular schools where subjects would be taught from an Africentric perspective.
Work with York University and community agencies to establish a centre of research on how to close the learning gap between black children and their peers of other backgrounds.
While many trustees support more inclusive courses, the stumbling block has long been creating a separate program or school with an Africentric focus with a largely black staff and student body.
It has been a lightning rod for racial debate in Toronto for more than a decade, since Ontario's Royal Commission on Learning in 1995 suggested a black-focused school might help stem the higher dropout rate among black students, often blamed on a curriculum that overlooks their heritage and teachers who don't reflect their diversity.
At the time of the Royal Commission, 40 per cent of black Grade 9 students in Toronto were dropping out, and their prospects haven't improved.
The Toronto District School Board says 40 per cent of Caribbean-born students drop out, and 32 per cent from east Africa.